Tag Archives: Prayer

How faith works – Philemon 1-7, Part 3

21 Aug
Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

Have you wondered how faith works? What is faith? I long ago heard that faith is like sitting in a chair. You sit down, believing and trusting that the chair will hold you up. Of course, the chair might be poorly built, and when you sit on it, the chair breaks apart and you fall to the ground! While I get the chair illustration, it can still seem difficult to know if I am truly placing my faith in God. What do I actually do?

As I said in the previous post, Jesus has numerous really important purposes for this letter Paul is writing to his friend Philemon, and one purpose that is to explain how faith works. If you haven’t started with Part 1 of this series on Philemon 1-7, I encourage you to pause reading this one and start with Part 1. Then continue with Part 2. Ok, all caught up?

Now look at Philemon, verses 4-7, which is Paul’s brief introduction to the main part of the letter.  In this intro, Paul will set the tone for what he has to say to Philemon.  So let’s look at it closely.

Verse 4 is pretty straightforward.  Paul often talks like this in his other letters.  He tells Philemon that he thanks God for Philemon, as he remembers Philemon in his prayers.  What a wonderful example Paul sets for Philemon and anyone who would read this letter, even 2000 years later.  We should pray for people, and thank God for them.  How often do you pray for the people in your life, thanking God for them?  What if that became a new habit for you?   

Also, imagine how Philemon would have felt reading that.  He would love it.  It’s so encouraging.  Paul, the guy who was one of the foremost Christians of his day, even when he is hundreds of miles away in Rome, on house arrest, is personally remembering Philemon, praying for him, and thanking God for him?  Who do you need to write a note of encouragement to, just saying, “I’m praying for you, and I’m grateful for you”?  And then actually pray for them.  I think the note itself is a prayer too.  This day and age with texting, it is so easy to send a note of thanks and prayer for people.  A few weeks ago, someone put a card on my desk in my office.  It simply said, “You are loved and being prayed for you!”  It was anonymous.  They made sure the focus was on God, not on them.  It was really encouraging!

But Paul is not nearly done with the encouragement for Philemon.  Look at verse 5. There he explains the reason that he thanks God for Philemon.  Two reasons, really.  First, he heard about Philemon’s faith in the Lord.  Second, he heard about his love for all the saints.  So word got out.  People who visited Paul were saying to Paul that Philemon is the real deal. 

I always get a little weirded out when I hear that people are talking about me.  Whether that is good or bad.  It can just feel uncomfortable.  How about you? Do you feel that way when you find out people are talking about you? 

But it sure does help, though, to hear that they have good things to say about you.  Paul has heard people say very good things about Philemon: about his faith in the Lord and love for all the saints.  Those are two really important aspects of being a disciple of Jesus, so think with me about how faith and love work together in the life of a disciple of Jesus. Faith in God that shows it is true faith by loving people. 

I recently heard a talk about faith that was very helpful.  The speaker said that we so often think of faith as “assent,” meaning that faith is when we believe in or agree with certain ideas or concepts.  It is saying, “I agree or I believe that Jesus is God, that he died and rose again, and so on.”  But in the New Testament, when the writers, including Paul and Jesus himself, talked about faith, they were almost certainly not talking only about assent.  When they talked about faith, it included assent, but it went beyond assent to allegiance.  In other words, when we have faith in Jesus, we are saying, Jesus, you are the one true King, and I pledge my allegiance to you and you only.”  Paul says that is what Philemon was doing.  Philemon was showing that he was a true disciple of Jesus, by living out a faith that demonstrated love.

Paul is also setting a tone here.  He definitely wants Philemon to self-identify as a person who demonstrates faith in God by loving all Christians.  He has a reason for encouraging Philemon so much.  That reason will become very apparent in verse 8 when Paul says “therefore”.  We’ll get to that next week when we study the rest of the letter.  For now, observe what Paul is saying about Philemon, and ask yourself how that might apply to you.  How is your faith in the Lord?  How is your love for the people in the church?  Is your love and faith being talked about?  Are there ways you could improve? How so? What do you need to do differently?

Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship? [False ideas Christians believe about…God’s desires for Christians. Part 1]

25 Mar
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What are God’s desires for Christians?  He just wants us to pray and read the Bible, right? 

Well, actually there are a lot of ideas about what God wants his people to do.   Unfortunately not all the ideas are based in Scripture. In fact, some of the ideas that Christians use to guide their lives, or to assure themselves that God is honored by their lives, are downright false.  Sometimes we create alternate Christian realities that insulate us from truly knowing and following what God wants for us.  What does God actually want for us?  In this series we’re going to find out that it might be surprising. God’s desire for us is sometimes in direct conflict with what Christians desire for ourselves.  Because that can be very hard to take, we can create false ideas about what God wants us to do, or how he wants us to live.  So let’s do some fact-checking about ideas that Christians believe about what God wants for us. 

Have you heard any of these phrases?

  • Christianity is not a religion it is a relationship.
  • God isn’t interested in making you happy; he’s interested in making you holy.
  • OR it’s opposite: God always wants me to be happy.
  • God’s love for me is determined by my behavior.
  • God is not OK with doubt and anger.
  • God does not expect that much from me.

Each week as I have displayed these lists of phrases, I’ve thought, “Whew…what are you all going to think?  There are some phrases each time that seem like they absolutely should not be on a fact-checking list, as they are phrases that are obviously true.”  Same goes for this week. 

Right off the bat, that first one is one that Christians say so frequently that it can’t possibly need to be on this list, right? 

Actually, last week, I had one of those strange moments when I was writing one line of thinking, while at the same time considering another thought to myself.  I wrote that, “God gives us free will because he does not want us to be robots, but wants us to be in a real relationship with him,” and at the same time as I was writing, the thought hit me, “next week you’re going to be fact-checking this!”

Am I now disagreeing with myself? I’ve probably said this phrase thousands of times: “Christianity is not a religion it is a relationship.”

So what is Christianity?  A religion or a relationship? When we think of religion we think of harsh rules and dead rituals, and in our evangelical tradition, we have reacted quite strongly against that, saying that Christianity is not a religion, instead it is a vibrant relationship with God. 

Let me start this fact-checking by saying, I agree with that!  Take John 15:12-17, for example. There Jesus says to his disciples, “I call you friends.”  He says that he so deeply wants to be in friendship with us that he lays down his life for us.   It’s not just an acquaintance; Jesus says he wants to be in close friendship with us.

He is describing real give and take. 

Think about relationships with me.  How does a relationship start?  And how is relationship maintained?  It takes lots of communication.  Real time spent together.  That’s what God desires to have with us!

As a result, some Christians are very anti-religion because they feel it goes against the concept of relationship.  But does it?  Is religion automatically bad?  In our next post in this series, we’ll look at the concept of religion more closely. For now, let’s take time to dwell on the words on Jesus in John 15:12-17. He wants to have a close friendship with us! In fact, he did lay down his life for us to make that friendship possible. Consider your own relationship with Jesus. Would you call it a friendship? How does it compare to your human friendships? What would it look like for you to pursue closer friendship with Jesus?

This too shall pass? [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 4]

14 Mar
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Are the difficult times in life good or bad? You might read that and think, “How could difficult times ever be good?” Well, when we experience suffering, we tend to feel more helpless and needy and thus we pray more. Increased levels of communication with God, as with any relationship in which greater communication almost always results in being closer to the person, leads to a good change: increased intimacy with God. Maybe difficult times, then, are good? 

So many of us have experienced a deep closeness with God during the hard times.  Therefore, we sometimes say that the phrase, “During times of suffering, you’ll be closer to God.” But is it true?

What we have seen in this series fact-checking phrases that Christians commonly believe is that, like the two-liner statements in the biblical Proverbs, many of these phrases are not guaranteed promises, but they are statements that are generally true.  The same can be said about “during suffering, you’ll be closer to God.”

While generally true, we need to see that this statement is sometimes false, given that some people have gone through suffering and lost their faith!  So this statement is not a promise.  Suffering often brings us closer to God, but it also sometimes crushes faith.  We need to be very sensitive to that.  Many people in the midst of suffering are having a crisis of faith.  God gave us free will, and there are many responses to difficult circumstances.

And that brings us to our next statement.  When people are in the midst of suffering, we say, “This too shall pass.”

How many of you say this?  Or have heard it said?  It is a go-to phrase for many. Is it in the Bible?  Nope. So why do people say this?

Because people in the midst of struggle are really having a hard time, and they need hope.  So we tell them “this too shall pass,” trying too give them hope that the pain will eventually finish.  But is that true? 

Generally, yes.  Most difficult times have an end date.  Yet in the midst of the difficulty, it is very, very hard for us to be comforted by a possible good future.  We are in the pain now, and we can think that the rest of our lives will be this way.

So there is a tension in the reality of life. Whether it is a health situation or a financial situation or a difficult relationship, it is generally true that they almost always pass, get resolved. But not always. Look, for example, at 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.  Paul reminds us that our troubles will all pass. Here’s the thing thought: the pain might not be done until we die and are pain-free in heaven.  But it will pass. 

That is a harsh reality…this too might not pass until we die.

One of my first acts as senior pastor was to gather a bunch of people to meet with an elderly man in our congregation to pray for him and anoint him with oil.  He was sick and was hoping and praying for healing, and God did not answer that prayer for healing.  James 5 even says that God will heal.  Instead, a few months later that man passed away.  The sickness did not pass on this side of heaven.  Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that he, himself, had what he called a “thorn in the flesh” and he asked God numerous times to take it away.  We don’t know what the thorn was.  Could be a broken relationship.  Could be a health problem.  Could be an enemy.  But God never takes it away from Paul. 

So again, we have a proverbial phrase.  Pain generally will pass and things will go back to normal.  There are most often seasons in life.  And seasons come and go.  Writing this in the northeastern United States in early March, I am personally ready for the warmer temps of spring!  In parenting, there are seasons.  We recently had an interesting conversation with one of our college-age sons.  He was home for a visit, and somehow we got to talking about these seasons in life.  My wife mentioned that once our kids turned 12-15 years old, we as parents suddenly lost most of our knowledge and became dumb and irrelevant.  But once the kids turned 19-20, we parents amazingly became smart again!  There are seasons, and the statement “this too shall pass” reflects how that is generally true.  Most often, the difficulty comes and goes. 

But not always.  So again, be sensitive to those in pain.  They are in the middle, struggling.  Encourage them and be with them in the pain.  But, do not give false promise that it will guaranteed be taken away.  That is not a promise God gives.  We can and should hope for that, work towards that and pray for it.  But, that is different than saying that God has made it a promise.

As we talked about earlier, in the pain, many can have a crisis of faith.  Sometimes we think “God why are you allowing me to go through this?”  And it seems to us that God is silent.  Nowhere to be found. 

So how should we respond in the midst of pain? Check back in to part 5, and we’ll explore how to have a healthy approach to the difficulty in life.

How to bring righteousness to the world [Second Sunday of Advent, part 5]

14 Dec

In this series on the Lectionary readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, we have been following the life and ministry of John the Baptist and the message God was proclaiming through John: a huge roadwork project.  What is that project?  God wants us to repent, so that he might bring righteousness on the world.  And that brings us to the fourth reading, Philippians 1:3-11, which explains what this means for us.

There we read Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, a writing which would have been 25 years or so after the events of John the Baptist’s ministry. 

Very much like the church we heard about last week, in the city of Thessalonica, Paul had started a church in the city of Philippi, which like Thessalonica, is in modern-day Greece.  But unlike modern-day Thessaloniki, which is a bustling city, Philippi is now just an archaeological site.  In Paul’s day, it was another important city, however, not far down the road from Thessalonica. You can read about Paul’s visit there in Acts 16.    

We learn in his prayer in Philippians 1 that Paul had great affection for his friends there.  Take a look at Verses 3-5 and 7-8, and there we see Paul’s thankful and joyful prayer because of their partnership in the gospel. In verse 6 he expresses his confidence that God, who began good work in them, will carry it to completion. Sfter that encouragement, he concludes with some teaching and goals for them in verses 9-11.  It is a prayer for four things:

First, that their love may abound more and more in depth of knowledge.

Second, that they would be able to discern what is best.

Third, that they would be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.

Fourth, that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.

The anchoring phrase of these verses is that first phrase of Paul’s prayer: that their love may abound more and more in depth of knowledge.  In the language Paul originally wrote this in, ancient Greek, this is a very vivid phrase.  It carries the idea of an overflow of love that just keeps growing beyond what can be contained.  What happens in that extremely loving atmosphere of a church family is that they will be able to discern what is best, and they will be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, which is the day of the second coming of Jesus.  This is a love that knows no bounds, and a love that is getting to know one another more and more.

Paul is once again, like he was last week with the Thessalonian church, looking forward to second coming of Jesus, now teaching the Philippian Christians how to act in preparation for that day.  They are to love one another with a growing, overflowing love, that is marked by knowing one another more and more.

That raises an interesting question: Is it possible to love someone who you barely know?  You may be aware of them, but it cannot be said that you love them.  Love requires knowledge.   And knowledge boosts love.  When they love like that, growing in their depth of knowledge for one another, Paul says, there will be residual blessings.  They will be able to discern what is best, and they will be pure and blameless as they wait for Jesus to return.  Love for one another ,then, is foundational for a church family.

Finally, take notice of last phrase of Paul’s prayer: “that they would be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.” This is the word that ties all our passages together: righteousness. 

Paul wants the people to be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus.  From Malachi’s prophecy of the two messengers we learned about God’s desire for his people to be righteous. Then from Zechariah’s psalm in Luke 1, we heard Zechariah, the father of the first messenger, talk about God’s plan for rescuing his people so that we could serve him in righteousness all our days.  Next we looked at the ministry of Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, who fulfilled the role of the first messenger, calling people to repentance and lives of righteousness.  Now we conclude with Paul teaching the people how this righteousness flows from Jesus.  Paul will teach in many passages that we do not have a righteousness of our own, but instead we can only accept the gracious gift of Jesus giving his righteousness to us, at one point describing it like putting on the clothing of righteousness.

After we take on Jesus’ righteousness, waiting for Jesus to return, we are called to lives of love, demonstrating the righteousness that Jesus came to give to us.  That is the amazing gift of Malachi’s second messenger, who is God himself, that he wants to cleanse us of our unrighteousness and give us his! 

What is this righteousness?  I mentioned that it is very much connected to the idea of justice, of making things right, flowing from a heart of love.

As we wait, then, for Jesus to return, we are to be a people so filled with love, abounding with love, that we work to make things right in our lives, in our relationships, and in the world around us.  That is the fruit of righteousness.  That is how we live and work and prepare for Jesus to return.  That is the work of clearing the debris, making straight the crooked paths, smoothing the hills and filling the valleys.  By loving one another with so much abundance, we are bringing justice and righteousness to the world.

To this concept of justice, I think of the recent report given at our local ministerium about homelessness in our school district, Conestoga Valley. It is rampant. CV has more homeless students in our school district than any other in the county except for the school district of Lancaster. This is why we support CVCCS and the Ministerium and Homes of Hope.  I encourage you to consider what role you can play, especially at Christmas, no matter where you live. Get to know your community.  Can you find any evidence of injustice?

Addressing injustice in our communities is just one example of how we can bring justice and righteousness and prepare the way for the return of the King.  Think about that return of the King.  What will he see when he arrives?  Just like the dignitaries that visit Jamaica, will Jesus find a road with potholes and debris, or will he find a road that is paved and cared for?  I’m not talking about actual roads, in case you were wondering!  I’m talking first and foremost about his church, but also all people, society, and culture. Will Jesus find broken relationships, people stuck in addictions, ravaged by injustice?  Will he see his church striving to love and to bring righteousness to the world?

How TO wait during hard times [First Sunday of Advent, part 5]

7 Dec

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

In this series of posts on the Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent 2019, we’ve been learning how to wait during hard times.  In the previous post about the fourth reading, Luke 21:25-36, we heard from Jesus how NOT to wait.  Now we continue in that passage, and Jesus teaches the proper way to wait.

We can summarize Jesus’ teaching as: watch out in prayer.  When we are struggling with pain, anxiety, and God seems far away, and our world seems to be crumbling around us, Jesus says our response should be watchful prayer.  Jesus mentions two requests we should pray for: escape and stand.  The word “escape” is not to be understood as fleeing or running away, but as avoidance.  It is okay to pray, “God please don’t let me go through this.”  Jesus himself prayed that very thing before he went to the cross! God might say, “Ok…I will take that away.”  But God might not.  He didn’t take the cross away from Jesus.  This is when the second prayer request is so important. Stand.  And in particular Jesus says, “stand before the Son of Man,” which is him.  What he is referring to is that we are praying for strength to stand in the midst of trial and pain, to stand in such a way that we remain faithful to Jesus. 

When we are going through hard times, our response should be pray.  Pray for the difficulty to be taken away, but if it is not taken away, pray that God will strengthen us to remain faithful.

Here we can look to Jesus as our model.  Constantly we see him, especially in the Gospel of Luke, getting away for prayer. In Matthew 6 he tells us to go into our closet and pray.  That’s what Jesus did.  It might not have been a literal closet for Jesus, but it had the same effect when he went all by himself on a mountain to be alone with God. I don’t have a prayer closet, but I do like to find a quiet room in the church.  Often I walk into the dark sanctuary, sit in the front and pray.  Sometimes like Brother Lawrence, I pray while washing dishes, seeking to have a conversation with God all day like Lawrence did.

We need to learn to get away from our phones, from TV, from the internet, from people, and spend time sitting in God’s presence. 

I know waiting can be so hard.  But the one place we will find the strength to watch for Jesus and be faithful for his return is the place of sitting in his presence.  It might be while you are driving, and you turn off the radio or the podcast, and you just talk with God and listen for him.  It might be while you are exercising, and you remove the headphones from your ears, turn off the music and listen.  Or maybe you keep the headphones in and listen to music that helps you pray!   Or maybe an app that guides you into listening to God.  It might be in the quietness of the morning before people awake, or after they have gone to bed.  It might be on lunch break in the park, in your car, in the bathroom.  As we saw in Deuteronomy 18, God says that we need to learn to listen to Jesus. 

When we listen, when we bask in his presence, we find strength to remain faithful, even in the dark times, even in the waiting.

Watch, and pray, the days are coming.  Maybe for some of you, the days are here.  You are living through pain right now.  Maybe for some of you those days are coming.  What is your practice of prayer?  Do you need to increase the time you spend in prayer?  Do you need to spend time working on the quality of your prayer? 

Anthony Bloom, in his book Beginning to Pray, gave an illustration that really hit home with me.  He said, consider your relationship with your spouse or significant other or maybe even a close friend.  What would that relationship be like if the sum total of your communication with that person was you going up to them for five minutes each day, pulling out a list of stuff you want them to do, running down the list, and saying, “Great talk.  Please do all that for me.  Talk with you tomorrow.”  The next day, you do the same talk again.  Sometimes you skip days, thinking very little of it, but when you resume talking to that person, it is more of the same, your five minute wish list.  And that’s it.  How would that relationship go?  It would fail very fast. 

When I was on sabbatical, and I was learning about listening to God, that story really convicted me.  I started practicing listening prayer.  But I will tell you that since I have been back from sabbatical, with the busyness of life, it is so easy to think, I don’t have time for listening to God.  Jesus reminds us in Luke 21 that nothing is more important.  Right before he was about to encounter the most momentous event of his life, which was his crucifixion, you’d think he would be taking every last second to teach his disciples, to help prepare them for what was coming, give them tools to succeed. But he doesn’t.  Instead he prays.  At the moment of crisis Jesus is praying.

How can we be a people of prayer?  Are you in a moment of crisis?  Are you praying, listening for the voice of God, basking in his presence?  If this resonates with you, but you are not sure where to begin, I recommend that you read Bloom’s book, and another one called Into The Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird.  Study those books.  Then find your closet, watch and pray.

What can satisfy the soul? part 4 (the drastic action needed)

25 Oct
Image result for destroy a tv

We started this series of posts looking at satisfying videos, thankful for them, but noting that they cannot satisfy the soul.  We talk about our phones yesterday and how they promise so much, but they, too, don’t satisfy the deepest longings of our souls.  What can satisfy the soul?  We found one answer: only God can satisfy.  We found that Moses tells the people of Israel in Deuteronomy 12 to take dramatic action to make sure they find their satisfaction in God alone. That dramatic action carries on into chapter 13.  We’re not going to read chapter 13, but instead we’re going to look at its structure.

In chapter 13, Moses talks about three groups of people.

  1. Prophets who teach false gods in verses 1-5.
  2. Family members who teach false gods in verses 6-11.
  3. Wicked towns who teach worship of false gods in verse 12-18.

And what does God say the people should do to each of these three groups? Eliminate them.

In chapters 16:21-17:7 this theme continues. “Purge the evil from among you.” These are brutal passages, I know.  God is talking about stoning people, totally destroying them, even people from within one’s own family.  It raises up inside some of us those difficult questions about violence in the Old Testament and why God would ever command that kind of purge.

I listened to an Old Testament scholar recently remark that when he hears concerns about the violence in the Old Testament, it is often from people who have ingested probably hundreds of hours watching violent movies and television shows, and they seem not to have a problem with that media.  The scholar makes a good point about the irony or possibly hypocrisy of people who would be disgusted with violence in Deuteronomy 13 on Sunday morning, only to go and choose to spend money watching a violent film that same afternoon. 

But one might respond, “Wait a minute, in those violent films, it is not God doing the violence, but in Deuteronomy 13 it is.”  Is it, though?  Or is God responding with loving protection for his people?

We can hardly imagine what it was like in ancient pagan cultures, and for those with a slave mentality. We simply have to go back to the fact that a nation of slaves needs to have a dramatic and decisive kind of protection, and that could require total elimination of all evil influences, even from within the nation and from within one’s own family.  Can’t stomach it?  Me neither. I don’t like Deuteronomy 13 at all.  I’m glad we live in a different time and under a different covenant.

We need to remind ourselves that what we are reading is God’s covenant treaty with Israel, and it is not for us.  We are under the New Covenant, and we are not bound to follow the rules of the Old Covenant. We need to hear that clearly. These rules are not for us. 

So is there any principle from Deuteronomy 13, 16 and 17, that can carry over to those of us under the New Covenant?  I think there is!

Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5?  “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to lust, gouge it out.”  Now was Jesus speaking literally?  When I mentioned this live in my sermon, I asked everyone to hold up their hands.  I didn’t see any chopped off hands or gouged out eyes.  If we were taking Jesus literally, there should have been  some evidence of chopping and gouging!  We are right not to take Jesus literally, as he was using figurative language to make a point. Jesus was saying “Take drastic action.”

We simply must be lovingly, graciously, restoratively concerned for purity and holiness in our own lives and in a church family.  And we must take dramatic action to get there. Ask yourselves the question: what dramatic action in your life in order to pursue God’s ways? What are strongholds that you need to destroy?  What are your high places? 

Media? Sports? Addictions?

Are you trying to find satisfaction in your life from sources that cannot satisfy? Much of media and sports are neutral.  I’m thankful the Redskins have what looks to be a somewhat competitive team this year. I also enjoy a number of television shows. But those things cannot provide satisfaction, except temporarily.  Our inner selves are longing for something more, and God knows this.  He instructs the Israelites to worship him only, and not other false gods, because those false gods cannot satisfy.

He instructs Israel to worship him in his ways.  Not in their ways.  God has their best interest in mind.  He wants to preserve their newfound freedom.  He wants them to enjoy the abundance of the Promised Land.  God also is a God of justice, as we saw a few weeks ago, and he wants to eradicate the unjust and detestable practices found in foreign lands, and to do all that, Israel must stay true to him.  They must find their satisfaction in him, and not be lured into the false religion of the powerful, unjust nations around them. 

I encourage you examine your own life.  What will it look like for you to pursue finding satisfaction of your deepest desires in God alone?  What do you need to stop?  And what do you need to start? Do you spend time with God?  Do you need to open up space in your life to drink deeply from the well of his Word, of listening for his voice in prayer?

What can satisfy the soul? part 3 (can your phone?)

24 Oct
Photo by Stephen Petrey on Unsplash

Our smartphones promise so much.  Can they satisfy the soul?  Take note today how often you use yours, and lift up your eyes and observe how often other people are on their phones.  The first iPhone came out in June 2007, and in 12 years smartphones have swept the globe, with about one-third of every human using one.  In the USA, research finds that 95% of all Americans have a cell phone, and 77% have a smartphone!  Get this: in the 18-29 demographic, 94% use smartphones, and 100% have a cellphone.  100%!  Even if the actual percentage is 99.5% and they just rounded up, these stats paint an astounding picture of phone adoption rates.  And it happened fast!  From 2011 to 2018, smartphone use by Americans increased from 35% to 77%.  Is there any question that we love our smartphones?  What does this say about us and our inner longings?  What does this say about what we worship?  All week long we have been looking at Deuteronomy 12, seeking to answer the question: what can satisfy the soul?  Can our phones?  Let’s continue into Deuteronomy 12 to find out.

We saw yesterday in part 2 that God must be the focus of our worship. Moses goes on in Deuteronomy 12, describing to Israel how this worship of Yahweh is to occur in verses 15-28.  There are lots of sacrifices and blood and I encourage you to read that at some point.  In this post, however, we are going to jump to verses 29-32 where Moses summarizes his theme again. Take a moment and read that.

He says, “Do not worship like the people around you worship, as it is detestable.”  Look at verse 31: “They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”  Human sacrifice, God says, is totally detestable.  This is a major way that Yahweh was different from other gods of the nations around Israel.  There are actually many ways that Yahweh and his expectation for the people of Israel was different, and we’ve seen some of those ways already in our study through Deuteronomy.  Here are some examples: He chose Israel, a weak, slave nation, rather than picking one of the powerful nations.  He wanted to be a loving close relationship with them, rather than to be distant from them.  He was deeply concerned that they, a nation of slaves, be protected and provided for, so they could be transformed into a life of freedom and flourishing.  When they messed up, and they disobeyed him, he was gracious and forgiving.  All of these characteristics of Yahweh are strikingly different from the other Ancient Near Eastern gods.  Now here we see another distinction, as Yahweh is concerned about human life, in particular wanting to eradicate the horrible practice of human sacrifice.  In the Ancient Near East, ritual human sacrifice was all too common, and Yahweh wanted it abolished.

Do you think there might be worship practices in our culture that God would find detestable?  We’ve already talked about the possibility that Israel had a deep-seated slave mentality that could lead to them to be tempted to worship the gods of the powerful nations around them.  It is hard for us to imagine Israel seriously considering false worship to the point of engaging in human ritual sacrifice.  But God is right to be concerned about this, knowing that his people are so easily lured away.  There was a deep dissatisfaction in their souls, and God knew that it would be attractive to Israel to attempt to fill that longing by worshiping like the nations around them.  Could the same be said of us? Let’s be humble and teachable as well, considering the possibility that we, too, might engage in false worship, trying to satisfy our souls.  No, Christians are not sacrificing infants, but we would do well to ask if there are any practices of false worship that might be tempting us?

It begs the question: What is true worship? What worship does God desire of us?  To show up at church worship services, sing songs, pray, and listen to a sermon?  Does God want us to perform religious rituals like communion?  Before we identify false worship, let’s first make sure we clearly define the worship God desires.  Worship that God desires is celebrating, rejoicing and honoring him, and not just in a ceremony for one hour, but through a life of following him and obeying his ways.  Worship that God desires is a life of making things right in the world.  Worship includes battling injustice in society, healing brokenness in relationships, serving God, and pursuing the mission of his Kingdom.  And you know where that starts?  Giving our hearts to him. Finding our satisfaction in him.  There are plenty of times where God would say that Israel was doing all kinds of sacrifices, fasting, and rituals, but he said it was worthless to him because their hearts were far from him.  In those moments, they showed they were not satisfied in God alone.

And so where are our hearts?  The shocking message of false worship, God says, is that any worship can become false worship if our hearts are not satisfied in God.  The music and the sermon might be wonderfully faithful to God and his Word, but if we are not satisfied in God alone, we can be tempted to desire those worship elements to satisfy us.  One way to discover if our hearts are not satisfied in God alone is to evaluate our reaction to worship services.  If the are “not up to par” or “boring” or if we have a critical spirit about them, or if we think or say, “I didn’t get fed” about a sermon, then it could be our hearts are far from God. 

I will admit that sometimes, my heart is all about is sitting on our sofa, phone in hand, scrolling through the app store trying to find a new cool app that will make my life better.  I think I want to get the most out of this phone that I am paying for every month. Like going to the buffet.  I want to go there and eat all day long to get the biggest bang for my buck. 

And yet what is really going on beneath the surface?  I think a new phone app, or lots of great food, will satisfy me or fulfill me, and make my life better.

But that is a lie!  When I went on sabbatical, I got rid of Facebook and games on my phone, and it literally felt like an emotional ripping away, but you know what? It made my life better!  Instead of escaping to social media land or a phone game, which I did way too much, I tried to read a book or focus on my family, or pray.  And that prayer was the major change.  I tried to learn to sit in God’s presence and hear his voice.  I tried to learn to be satisfied in him.

What I found is that it wasn’t my smartphone that was the problem.  In fact, while I removed a bunch of distracting apps, I went on the install a handful of prayer apps that have been incredibly helpful in pointing my heart to God. 

We simply cannot find our satisfaction in anything but God.  And that is what God is saying to Israel, “you will not find your satisfaction in worshiping those other gods, or like they worship.”  True satisfaction can be found only in God.

So follow the teaching of Yahweh, in Deut. 12:2 – take dramatic action, break down the altars to the things in your life through which you are seeking to satisfy your soul.  Delete the apps, cancel the subscription.  Is there music, movies, books, or something else holding you back?  An addictive habit?  Let it burn.  Tear down those strongholds.  Take dramatic action.  Find your satisfaction in God alone, because only he can satisfy the longings of our souls.